Can you imagine eating a french fry without ketchup? What does ketchup taste like anyway? It’s a little sweet and a bit salty, but it’s also something else, something deeper and more satisfying. That hard-to-identify taste actually has a name — umami. The term comes from the Japanese word for delicious, and the amino acid that possesses umami (glutamate) was rooted out by a Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda in 1907.
For centuries, humans agreed that there were four basic tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. But Ikeda was convinced that the dashi broth his wife made by soaking kelp in water had a different taste and set about finding out what that was. He ended up identifying glutamate and creating the substance monosodium glutamate, which became the unwitting bad guy at Chinese buffets the world over (by the way, MSG is harmless). Even though Ikeda’s discovery was made more than a hundred years ago, umami has only recently become accepted as the fifth taste, helped along by the scientific discovery in 2000 of umami receptors on our tongues.
But even without the science to explain it, certain condiments and foods were beloved and used in cultures since the beginning of time because they had that satisfyingly savory flavor we crave: tomatoes and parmesan cheese in Italy, fish sauce and pho in Vietnam, soy sauce and sushi in Japan, Worcestershire and beef in England. Meat, being a protein, is another food packed with umami, which erupts after cooking and curing. Veal stock is an essential source of umami in classic French cooking. Even mother’s milk has umami, way more than cow’s milk, proving that our preference for it is hard-wired.
Most chefs have learned how to harness its power, even if they’ve never heard the word before. We won’t tell you what local chef had to google the term to find out what we were talking about, but be sure, he has plenty of dishes that are packed with it.
At Two Boroughs Larder, Josh Keeler wields umami like a weapon. Many of his dishes start with rich stocks and broths, and his dedication to using the whole animal — from heads and hooves to necks and ears — means that he’s wringing every last savory bit from it. In his roasted pork neck and clams dish, he layers it on. Clams are a rich source of umami, even higher than oysters and scallops, and pork neck is loaded with it, particularly if it’s cooked long and slow. He also uses dashi broth, the dish that spurred Ikeda’s discovery, and miso, a fermented soybean paste that’s brimming with umami. Mushrooms and cabbage both have ribonucleotides that synergize with glutamate and drive the taste to even more intensity. Whether you understand the chemistry in the bowl or not, the result is a deep, rich, and mysterious dish that will leave you smacking your lips in utter satisfaction.
Umami shows up quite unexpectedly in Chef Frank McMahon’s ceviche dish. He uses sweet potatoes, an ingredient that’s unusual to see in ceviche but common in Peruvian versions. The root vegetable acts as an umami delivery machine, ramping up the flavors of the fish and balancing the sourness of the lime juice. The spice from a jalapeño adds another kick to the flavor explosion.
A traditional dish from the coast of the Carolinas made good use of umami long before umami was even discovered. Pine Bark Stew is a fish soup that was traditionally made in iron cauldron pots on the riverbanks during migratory fish season. There’s no actual pine bark in the stew, and there are several explanations for the name, but the most plausible is that they used pine bark to stoke the fires under the cauldrons. “They’d scoop up all this fish, layer it with onions, potatoes, bacon, tomatoes, and light a fire underneath and stew it up,” says Robert Stehling, chef/owner of Hominy Grill. “Then everybody would come out to the river banks and have a party.”
Those ingredients — bacon, potatoes, tomatoes, fish — layered together produce a savory soup that’s brimming with umami. For his version, Stehling poaches an egg on top, adding yet more glutamate goodness to the proceedings.
Simple techniques like fermenting and curing can draw umami out. Take country ham, for example. The aging process releases enzymes that break the pork into amino acids — glutamate — intensifying its meaty flavor. Cured ham is the main source of umami in the west. At Husk, a country ham sits on the bar waiting for you to order it with your next glass of bourbon. They shave off a couple thin slices and serve it with fermented mustard seeds or pickled vegetables, delivering a classic combo that your tongue can’t get enough of.
Which is probably the best way to think about umami. It’s that thing you want more of, the essence of deliciousness. It’s the ketchup on your french fry. The parmesan on your bolognese. The kimchi in your bibimbap. The cocktail sauce on your oyster. The sweet potato in your ceviche. It’s the magic that makes the meal.